According to Looking creator Michael Lannan, his co-executive producer Andrew Haigh always knew who Patrick (Jonathan Groff), their protagonist, would be with at the series’ conclusion. Lannan “wasn’t as sure” but knew the beau in question was a “possibility.” (They “remember this a little bit differently,” Lannan noted.)
If that’s coy, we’re sorry, but we can’t reveal the ending Lannan and Haigh concocted for Looking: The Movie, which premieres this Saturday. In lieu of a strict cancellation, the understated, underrated, and under-watched HBO show about gay men in San Francisco is wrapping up with a film. Directed and co-written by Haigh, the about an hour-and-half long piece is a fulfilling conclusion to the story of friends Patrick, Dom (Murray Bartlett), and Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez), finding them gathering for a wedding and reckoning with what it means to mature.
The A.V. Club spoke to the three leads this past Sunday in New York, and Lannan in a phone conversation earlier this week.
The series had a movie pedigree. It was borne out of Lannan’s short Lorimer. Meanwhile, Haigh’s 2011 film Weekend was a highly praised portrait of a romance between two British men, who meet and fall for each other just as one is about to depart for America. Last year, Haigh directed Charlotte Rampling to an Oscar nomination in another two-hander, 45 Years.
Michael Lannan: We actually found out about [the cancellation and the movie] at the same time, so there wasn’t much of a conversation, to be honest. They said you’re not going to get a third season, but you can do a movie, so it came all at once. It wasn’t much of a debate.
Frankie J. Alvarez: Bittersweet is the right word. Because it’s the positive and the negative. We got the phone call that the show was canceled—and it’s the same phone call where we get revealed to us that we’re doing a movie. [There’s] the bitterness, the sadness of like, oh, my god, the potential that’s squandered after a season two—where we find our voice and we’re really at the apex of our storytelling capabilities, and then it’s cut short. And then the gift. Some shows get canceled and then it’s over, but here we get an opportunity to all come back together and tell this last story and wrap up the storylines. But also, selfishly, go back to San Francisco—hang out, spend time together, cuddle Murray, all these things that we treasure. That was a blessing to know, yeah, the series was over, but we get one last go at it.
Jonathan Groff: I did feel, before I read the script, like, “How do you take a whole season of a show and condense it into 90 minutes and make it not feel contrived?” But then, upon reading the screenplay, I remembered that our showrunners are filmmakers first. That’s their wheelhouse, actually. So it’s like, “Oh, right, Andrew Haigh is directing this movie, so we’re good.” I feel like they did a beautiful job of making the scenes longer and allowing us to create a film.
Ideas for season three were already on the table, but doing a film meant refocusing. Lannan and Haigh decided to send Patrick away from San Francisco in the interim between the second season and the movie. He then comes back to his old stomping grounds for his friend’s celebration, and is forced to tie up loose ends.
Lannan: I think we had to rethink the whole thing, because we had talked about Patrick getting involved with somebody else in season three that brought a new dimension to his emotional life…
I think [Agustín and Eddie’s marriage] was on the table for season three, but I don’t know that it was going to be as central of a thing as it is in the movie. In reconfiguring the story around a movie, we toyed with a few things, but we ended up feeling strongly that it was going to be Patrick’s journey through a very epic weekend, and the wedding just sort of fit with that as a guide. And of course, also as a way to set off Patrick’s own issues and unresolved relationships.
[Sending Patrick to Colorado] wasn’t the first thing that we thought of. But I think as we were discussing, we wanted to be sure that Patrick wasn’t the same that we had seen in season one or even season two. We wanted to make sure that he had progressed in some way that was very apparent in the beginning of the film, and I think he has an idea of how he’s changed that maybe is not quite completely accurate.
Groff: It’s interesting because, the way that they wrote the movie, knowing that it was just a weekend in San Francisco and that it was a last hurrah and that it was a celebration of a wedding and all of that, sort of mirrored that we were back in San Francisco for a shortened period of time. It was four weeks instead of two and a half months. So the experience that we were given in shooting the movie kind of reflected the actual storyline of the movie. The only thing that Andrew had said to me specifically about Patrick was that he wanted Patrick to have a different energy when he came in and be more of an adult. Being away in Colorado was really good for him. He wanted a different haircut. Patrick had kind of come into his own a little bit. This was more about cleaning up unfinished business. He wanted to see Patrick in the beginning be more in his own skin.
Alvarez: Agustín in the movie is the closest to Frankie. So, for me, Andrew didn’t really have to talk me into a place. He just trusted that I would come in in the place where I needed to be. But I think because we’re coming together for this wedding, it’s putting a lot of his life into stark relief. That’s kind of where we’re at, too. Three years ago, the pilot was picked up, I had just gotten married, and it was my first TV gig. And now it’s like—these friendships and these mentors that I’ve found that have been such good buddies and helped me navigate this business—this refuge that we had to work together, but this friendship is still there. That’s what happens in the movie. These three guys may not hang out in the same way, you know, they’re going to find different parts within their lives, different journeys. But the importance of that connection still being there.
The movie also provides an answer to the question of whether Groff’s character ends up with one-time boss Kevin (Russell Tovey) or Richie (Raúl Castillo), the barber he meets in the pilot.
Groff: First of all, I felt lucky to be portraying a man with two other men. Growing up watching romances and always pretending that I was the girl, to be living out that thing—it’s so rare that there’s a gay romance that’s at the center of a show. I felt really lucky to be doing that. That was amazing. For me, I felt like a lot of the second season, with Kevin and Patrick, after that initial break in the fourth episode, and then they get back together, I felt like I was watching a train wreck happening. Like when you’re watching your friend date someone and you’re like, “That’s just not the guy, and I know it’s not the guy, but I’m not going to tell you that’s not the guy, because I’m going to let it play out in real time.” And then it exploded in the end of the second season. I always kind of felt that way about that relationship because it was built on an affair. Maybe it’s wrong to think that. But Richie—we can’t spoil anything, so you can’t really talk about that.
Lannan: It’s hard, right? Because love triangles are a very classic trope, and we didn’t want to do something that just felt like something that has been done on TV a million times. At the same time, it’s a really important way to show choices, and it’s a really useful way to show what values a character has. I think the way that the character makes that choice and the way that other people involved in that triangle respond is really the most important thing. So once we had decided that that was what was happening, I think we wanted to approach it in the most interesting and detailed kind of way that felt like that we could ride with Patrick in a way that felt still original and very true to our world.
Matrimony is more than just a plot point in the movie, it’s also a symbol that ignites self-reflection and discussion among the characters. The formerly self-destructive Agustín has found happiness in his relationship with Eddie and a stable job. But that makes him question whether he has eschewed his goals. He is not the Keith Haring or Robert Mapplethorpe he thought he would be, and at a bar his friends tease him about how far he has strayed from his days condemning marriage as a heteronormative quest.
Lannan: Marriage is always hanging in the background of all of it from the beginning. In the pilot, Patrick goes to a bachelor party, and it upsets him so much in a way that he ends up stumbling around the streets of San Francisco and meeting Richie. So in some ways that was a very important catalyst for the whole series. Episode seven in the first season is about a wedding…
It has been a really important through-line throughout. I think that’s probably because it has been changing so much as we’ve been doing the show. Gay marriage was not legal in California when we shot the pilot. It’s such a critical way that Patrick thinks about himself. He is someone who always had a picture of how his life was going to be, and I think that did involve settling down with the man of his dreams and having a life not all that unlike that of his parents, but in a slightly different way. And you know, meeting Richie really upends all of that.
Groff: One of the things that’s so great about the movie, I think, is that it does include all the different perspectives about marriage. You have Doris [Lauren Weedman] saying, “I’ve never getting married, fuck that, marriage is for the gays.” Then you’ve got Agustín saying, “I’m going to get married, but who says I’m going to be monogamous and move to the suburbs?” Marriage is defined in a very different way by him. And then you’ve got Brady [Chris Perfetti], who’s like, “Marriage is the end of the gay experience being something unique and special and great and other and now we’re just conforming.” So I think the movie does a good job of kind of exploring every perspective of where we are right now in 2016 in America. Hopefully in a subtle, interesting way.
Looking arrived on HBO in 2014 with baggage. Inaccurately branded the “Gay Girls,” it faced backlash from gay critics at Slate and Gawker, both of whom called it and its characters “boring.” As the rare show to focus entirely on the experiences of gay men, it was under heavy scrutiny.
Murray Bartlett: I think it was unexpected in the beginning that there were going to be so many passionate voices about the show in whatever direction. But I think it’s really healthy. We’ve talked about this before. There’s a lot of pressure on a show that is representing, or that takes place in, a specific community, there’s a lot of pressure on it to represent that whole community. And when there’s very little representation for a community, as there is with the LGBT community, there’s so much pressure on those shows to just represent everyone, to cover everything, to be inclusive of all things. And you just can’t do that. But what it can do, and I think the show does this, is hold a mirror up and allow you to see where you are at that point in time. And I feel like the show has really done that. I feel like it could have been quite reactive to some of the reactions to the show in the beginning. But the genius creators of the show just took all those viewpoints and threw them up and put them on the screen and I think that’s the way to do it.
Lannan: One thing I remember happening early on when the first trailer came out was like, “Oh great, another show about rich white guys driving a Mercedes around San Francisco.” I was like, “What? What trailer did you watch?” People project a lot of expectations onto things, and they see it through the lens of what they want to be angry about or excited about or whatever. And I think exacerbating that is our Twitter, Facebook age, where everyone has to have an opinion immediately, or even before they’ve watched or read something. So I’m really interested and excited to have people discover the show now that it’s over, because I don’t think they’ll have to have an opinion. They won’t have to post on Facebook. They can just watch the show and get absorbed in it, and I think in a different way that’s not wrapped up in representation or polemics about what direction the gay community should be going in. So I’m pleased about that.
For what it’s worth, Lannan said he “wouldn’t say it’s impossible” when asked if there might ever be more Looking. “I think if the stars aligned and HBO wanted to do it, I think there’s a very good possibility that it could happen. But really, who knows?” For now, what does Looking leave behind?
Alvarez: We’ve been talking about how it’s really rare to see male intimacy on television. Not only in sexual situations, but also in friendships. Two men opening up and being vulnerable to each other. I think hopefully that’s a legacy that continues. Not only within main LGBT characters—who should be main characters, who should not be marginalized, who should be ones and twos and threes on shows. But hand in hand with that, I feel like instead of having another strong, silent, macho type, it’s much more interesting and much more real to see these men open up with each other and be vulnerable with each other and need each other in that way. Especially when it’s actually not a sexual situation. That’s what’s so successful about this show. The way Agustín needs Richie, you know? When he apologizes to him in season two. Moments like that, where it’s like, this is greater than just hooking up. This is about characters needing each other to break down walls, break down barriers, and, like we said before, the power of love and friendship and connection and all that stuff.
Lannan: It’s been really fascinating. Talking to straight fans of the show, it’s much less personal, and interesting in a different way, and I think a window onto a dynamic of male intimacy that they just don’t have in their lives, and a new perspective on larger cultural debates about marriage and long-term relationships and love. And I think that is what intrigued a lot of the non-gay audience. It was very personal for a lot of the gay audience, which I think cut both ways. One of our executives said people took our show more personally than any show on HBO, except for Girls. It really surprised him that it was taken some intensely, personally…
It’s hard for me to be objective, but it just seems like—how to put this? I want to be careful about this, right about this—that if gay audiences want shows with LGBT characters in all the primary roles, then they have to demand it, and they have to support it. HBO is a company, like every other studio and network, and they will respond to what audiences ask for and support. I’ve heard some people say, oh, there will never be another show with [for instance] LGBT characters because of the state of the world or because of the way Looking went, and I don’t think that’s true—I think it depends on so many things. Somebody has to have a way to crack it, and an interesting approach. I think it can be done again, it’s just going to require demand and support.